Monday, August 19, 2013

A month in Planet China

Hi friends and family!  Both Facebook and my blog site were censored in China- so I have been trying to catch up.  I have just posted my photos to Facebook- but I have added the better ones here as well.  

In our one month in China- we covered an incredible amount of ground.  We flew from Phuket, Thailand into Guangzhou, in the Canton Province of Southern China.  From there, we flew to Kunming in the Yunnan Province (in the south-west).  We traveled the majority of our time within the Yunnan Province to Dali and then to Shangri-la, "the gateway to Tibet".  Shangri-la is difficult to reach as it sits at 10,760 feet elevation in the Himalayan mountains, north-west in the Yunnan Province.  The harrowing trip was well worth it; it's a stunning city.  Next, we went to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province (via Kunming) to see the Giant Pandas.  While there, we also went to see the Sichuan Opera- famous for the rapidly changing masks of the actors- happening before your eyes without your knowing how.  It was a quick trip before we went to Xi'an, Shaanxi Province to see the buried terra-cotta soldiers followed by a few days in Beijing to see Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

We primarily traveled by train- and tried to travel overnight as much as possible in order to have more time for sightseeing.  Traveling this quickly is not necessarily recommended; we felt a bit rushed but in the end- we were thrilled with all that we saw.  It is possible to get a longer visa but the process was difficult enough on its own, as well as being expensive (note that this is the case for Americans- it's much cheaper/easier for other nationalities).

If we were to do it all over again- we'd skip Guangzhou and spend more time in the Yunnan Province.  We loved Shangri-la.  The mountains along with the Tibetan Buddhist culture and people there were beautiful.  The mountain city was drastically less crowded than the other cities we had visited, as well as having much cleaner air due to the elevation.  To top it off, the weather was noticeably cooler than the rest of China which was baking under the summer sun.  

Details.  Nate is much better at writing about our experiences with both detail and flair (although this level of perfection and brilliance takes some time- be prepared to wait several months for each publication).  His blog can be found at  Currently, the last blog is of our travels in New Zealand but he swears that he has several nearing completion.

So with the details now weighted squarely on Nate's shoulders- my blog lays out both the yin and yang of our experiences in China.  The negatives first so you'll forget them by the time you see the great photos :).  I do feel like I dwell on the negatives- but if you will be traveling in China- I think that they are important to be aware of.  If I bore you- skip down to the photos please!

*Pollution is a very real concern when traveling in China.  It was an immediate assault to our health.  Buy a cloth face mask as soon as you see one for sale.  I didn't and by the time I desperately needed one- I couldn't find them.  

*The cities are crowded!  While I knew this to be the case- it's not until you're wedged in between people like factory farmed cattle that you really understand the enormity of being in a country of 1.3 billion people (for comparison the US is 314 million [in 2012]).  

*Internet censoring is quite real with some sites being permanently blocked (FB, NYT, Wikipedia, Wordpress, Blogger, YouTube, IMDB [to name a few that we use]) and others that were on a rotating basis like Instagram. We are so thankful that wikitravel worked- which is what we tend to use instead of buying travel guides.  

*Deplorable Human Rights record.  While this wasn't immediately visible to me- it's hard not to remember on a daily basis that there are roaming execution units probably somewhere nearby.  The US Department of State arrived in Kunming shortly after we left to once again engage on this topic.

*Walking the streets has its own challenges-  there's frequent loud, guttural spitting; children relieve themselves right on the sidewalk through split pants and you need to watch your step as the trash mounds up throughout the day.  In order to cross the street, you need "keep your head on a swivel" as Nate would say- to ensure that you reach the other side.  The green walk signal does not mean that you can cross safely- you still need to be on full guard for turning vehicles which also have a green light.  Today in Mongolia- a walk sign flashed both the green and red pedestrian signals- which would have worked well in China. 

*When boarding a subway or nearing a security x-ray scanner- be prepared for shoving and blatant cutting in line.  You may think that you're safe next to the cute 80 year old woman- but I can assure you her elbows are bonier and her height gives her the advantage of getting you right in the gut. Give her due space in front of you before the metro or bus arrives.  We found that queuing exists only where it's forced- and even then, I've seen some remarkable attempts at evading the line.  I can't say I wholly blame the action; the lines are excessively long with little to no order enforced.  

*You will get stared at- these are long, unforgiving stares that at first make you think that your nose must be bleeding.  The younger people stare too- but normally behind their camera as they're snapping photos of you.  Some will come say hi and ask to be in a photo with you.  This seemed to always happen when I was drenched with sweat after trekking from our hostel to the train station.  Sorry America, I can assure you that those photos do not represent us well.  

My month there can best be described as culture shock.  In our first two weeks, I found myself needing to sleep more and take breaks more often from our sight-seeing.  In part, due to the scorching heat but also because of the incredible differences between American and Chinese culture.  We relied heavily on children who might know English and online information.  We learned to build in days incase we couldn't accomplish what we set out to do- which happened twice- once in Guangzhou- we couldn't figure out how to buy tickets at the train station and once in Kunming where we couldn't figure out how to get to the bus station.  It was difficult to get around on our own- but we did feel like we started to catch on (of course by the end of our stay).  I am sure that the longer someone is in China- the more one is able to adapt (at least I hope so)!

I read a great book called Lost in Planet China before arriving.  I recommend it for anyone who plans to visit.  I was duly warned of all that I mentioned above but I just chose not to believe it.  

Yes, it seems that Negative Nancy has taken over- but I know that what I'll remember are all the incredible things that we did and places that we visited.  So- on to that...

Our trip

We flew in with a really late arrival.  Armed with a map and the directions in Chinese- we found a taxi driver.  We arrived around 2am to what seemed like a desolate wasteland of boarded up commercial buildings and rats.  Upon entering the street the next morning- I was amazed to find that it was teaming with people.  We were somehow smack in the middle of the shopping mecca.  We learned that the area we were in- is well known for large-scale, wholesale commercial sales of clothing, shipping goods (like packaging materials), dried food, toys, LED lighting and anything else you can think of.  Walking around the neighborhood was incredible.  The streets were loud and bustling with activity.  It was an exciting place to be or a few days. I have many more photos on FB but here are some of the funny/shocking/confusing ones...

Clockwise from top left:  1. Packaged shark fins.  2. A picture of meal being served inside the restaurant (that we skipped).  3. Pig skin head.  4. Large, solid gold pig and piglet necklace.

Clockwise from top left:  1. Dried flower petals for tea.  2. Dried sea cucumbers.  3. Turtle shells.  4. Dried seahorses.

Clockwise from top left:  1. LED store.  2. Toys.  3. Dolls.  4. More rubber bands than I thought existed.

After a failed attempt to buy train tickets in Guangzhou (and later discovering they were sold out anyway), we flew to Kunming.  The city is at 6,200 ft elevation and was our first of two climbs in elevation while in China. It has one of the most temperate climates in China- and after months of our following summer- we loved being able to dig out some of our fall layers out of the forgotten depths of our bags.  

Kunming is also has a fascinating WWII history which gave it the name "the Hump".  The American Flying Tiger pilots used the city as an airbase in 1941 and 1942 to fly in supplies over the Himalayas from India in order to assist the Chinese.

Our first day there- we took advantage of the perfect weather to explore the city.  We first went to the Yuantong Si Buddhist temple.  It was built over 1,200 years ago and still remains an active place of worship and pilgrimage within Yunnan. On the way back- we walked through the Green Lake Park.  Photos of both are below.

Clockwise from top left:  1. A city gate near our hostel.  2. The Yuantong Si Tibetan temple.  3. A beautiful old pagoda within the newer city. 4. The gate to the "walking street".

Clockwise from top left:  1. A fortune teller.  2. A lotus flower in Green Lake Park.  3. A cute dog we saw while walking around the city that's guarding the shop (as my friend Tami pointed out- the bottle cap is for scale).  Most dogs we saw there were tiny.  4. One of many card games happening within Green Lake Park.

We also made a full day trip to see the Stone Forest.  After several hours of navigating local buses- we arrived to this beautiful park full of karsts. We did our best to avoid the large crowd of tourists and were even able to snap a few photos with no one else in them.
Pictures from our trip to the Stone Forest.

We took a day train from Kunming to Dali- which has a beautiful old city.  We found a hostel just outside of the north gate of the old city so access was really easy.  The old city, while being very touristy, also retains a great deal of charm.  We also loved being able to find restaurants with menus also in English (yay!).  If you travel to Yunnan- don't miss Old Dali.  Also, their local beer is quite tasty. 

Clockwise from top left:  1. The north gate to Old Dali near our hostel.  2. A snapshot of Old Dali with the Himalayas in the background.  3. The Three Pagodas (just a short walk from Old Dali).  4. A local fruit saleswoman.

Shangri-la, as I mentioned at the beginning is set high in the mountains, which makes access a bit of an issue.  We took an 8 hour bus ride from Old Dali to get there.  The rains had been heavy and the bus ride was a bit miserable (which is ironic now that I'm in Mongolia, where roads are non-existent making the drive to Shangri-la seem like a dream- but that will be for another post).  We arrived to the bus station after the city buses had stopped running.  We immediately found the people to be friendly and helpful as we tried to navigate our way to the hostel. Even the taxi driver was full of smiles and helpful.  We immediately knew that we were onto something good...

We stayed just a short walk outside of the old city.  The town is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhist culture, is at a very high elevation, has idyllic stone walkways lined by heavy timber buildings, has yaks, prayer wheels and gorgeous Tibetan Mastiffs.  It took us a few days to adjust to the high elevation but that didn't stop us from falling in love with this mountain community- including the animals :). Here are a few cuties...

Clockwise from top left:  1. Our first friend in Shangri-la who joined us for dinner.  2. A hostel pup who really loves french fries.  3. A Tibetan Mastiff on the main square- available to be your photo companion for a fee.  4. A woman holding a goat kid.  It was pretty random- maybe it was also for paid photos?

Clockwise from top left:  1. A huge prayer wheel at the Monastery in town that required many people to push.  2. A street shot of the cobblestone walkways in Shangri-la.  3. Prayer flags at a Tibetan monastery outside of town.  4. Tibetan prayer wheels in the town center.     

We took the bus back to Kunming for an overnight in order to catch a train to Chengdu.  Our seats were in the very front row of the double-decker- the last place I wanted to be...
Clockwise from top left:  1. While cars have road rights over pedestrians, it seems pigs still have the upper hand.  2. The road conditions in on the road from Shangri-la to Kunming.  3.  Our train from Kunming to Chengdu- it might be a tight fit- but safer.  Illustrated here only to show what we will put up with for safe transport.  4. We saw a few flipped trucks on the drive back- it was enough to keep me only traveling by train from there on out.

We went to Chengdu to see the Giant Pandas!  There is a Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding just outside of the city center.  We arrived early before the crowds on a cool and drizzly day.  It was our great fortune- because this meant that the pandas were outside rather than indoors where they stay cool in the AC.  We arrived during their feeding hours so we had lots of time to watch them fill themselves on fresh bamboo shoots.  I think we took more photos that day than any other day in China...

Clockwise from top left: 1. A Mao statue near the main square.  2. Me with some hungry pandas behind me.  3. A newborn panda in an incubator (they are always born premature- it's amazing any survived in the wild).  4. A hungry panda.

We attended the Sichuan Opera- which was more of a variety show- theater, comedy, musicians, shadow puppets and the famous changing masked actors.

We took the train from Chengdu to Xi'an.  Our trip there was quick- with our main mission being to see the terracotta soldiers.  These terracotta soldiers and horses along with real chariots were buried by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to be his army in his after life.  Three pits have been uncovered with 8,000 soldiers, 500+ horses and over a hundred chariots.  There had been reports for years of discovering fragments of terracotta but it wasn't until 1974 that a local farmer discovered the buried army.  If you visit, there's no reason to pay for an expensive tour- there is a cheap local bus that will take you from the train station.  

Photos of the Terracotta Army.

We then took a train to Beijing.  this was the first time that we had paid extra to be in second class- which mean 4 people to a tiny birth rather than 6.  We got on and met our roommates- both really nice and quiet.  The compartment was relaxed and quiet, unlike any train we had ridden thus far- and just as I settled into my book.... one of the guys traded (or sold?) his ticket to a woman and her two young kids.  So then there were 6 of us and I traded my book in for music.

We arrived to Beijing early in the morning- and caught the subway to the center of the city. Our hostel was in an old Hutong- an old, historic neighborhood within the 2nd ring road of Beijing.  Getting around was easy- it was a relatively quick subway ride wherever we needed to get.  The pollution in Beijing was the worst that we experienced while in China.  I noticed on the first day that my lungs were burning and my nose ran the whole time we were there (and almost a week after leaving).  After leaving, I thought that I had developed a cold but the symptoms disappeared quickly after arriving in Ulaanbaatar.  I am not sure what can be done other than a face mask to help protect you from the air quality.  I would recommend only a short stay in the city to see the things you want to and then exit quickly.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Our first day, we went to Tiananmen Square.  2. This is a picture of all the others that arrived when we did :).  3. A picture of a Forbidden City guard dog.  4. A view of the Forbidden City (through the pollution) from Jinhshan Park's hilltop temple.

On our second day in the city, we went to see the Great Wall at the Mutianyu location, within the Huairou District in Beijing!  it was a long day of navigating local buses but we saved loads of money by doing it on our own rather than with a tour.  Also this location is less crowded than many but it's also very steep (which is why I think the tours do not go here).  The air quality was clear and we had an amazing day walking along the wall.

Clockwise from top left: 1. We were low on cash but decided to take the cable car up to the top instead of climbing up the mountain. This gave us extra energy and loads more time to explore the wall.  2.  A snapshot from the cable car of the wall.  3. The dips and gains in elevation made for some great photos.  4.  Yours truly having an amazing day.

And then- we boarded the Trans-Siberian train for a 29 hour trip to Ulaanbaatar!

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